Where healing the inner child meets healing WNY’s food system: Meet Kristin Heltman-Weiss
As a young girl growing up in the largely affluent village of East Aurora, Kristin was one of the few in her community experiencing food insecurity. She shares, “In elementary and middle school, I was one of a handful of kids in my community who qualified for [food stamps and] free lunch, but I never got [lunch] because I didn’t want to be judged by the kids I grew up with. I chose to go without eating than to be embarrassed.”
Fast forward to her 30s, Kristin began to recognize that it was not her responsibility to harbor shame or embarrassment about her experience. Rather, that she was harmed while at the intersection and mercy of several dysfunctional systems—including the food system. “No one should have to feel that way. Because we all need food, and healthy foods should be available to everybody. It should be done with dignity, not shame attached to it.” She shared.
Even in light of her individual and familial struggles, Kristin recognizes the privileges that she simultaneously held during that time that helped keep her and her family afloat. “I had good access to education. I lived in a walkable community. I started cleaning houses at 11 [in my community] to be able to afford things. So, in many ways, I look back and think, ‘Oh, I was lucky’.”
Collective formed two years later and now owns 37 acres of fertile, second-generation farmland in Orchard Park. Their mission of cultivating farmer-led and community-rooted agriculture and food systems to actualize the rights of under-resourced peoples comes with only three requirements:
“This system honors that every group comes from different cultural traditions and practices surrounding how they organize, how they share, and how they support one another. And that's not on us to tell them to do it differently.” Kristin says. “The current system operates under the idea that farmers are donating surplus vegetables or foods. And the thing is, no farmer, [especially those facing one or more forms of systemic oppression], can afford to do that.”
It was during this time that Lowe—a fundraiser for a community garden that supported an under-resourced elementary school in the city—began to ponder his own upbringing and further understand that the area’s food system in its current state is fundamentally flawed.
“This made me realize that I had a different experience growing up. I had access, and the kids I worked with didn't know that the tomato that they're using for meat sauce came in from the dirt—not just the corner store.” Lowe shared.
For his expertise in the Niagara Falls and greater Niagara County food system and his gift of community building, Lowe was asked to participate on the Regional Advisory Council the WNY Regional Food System Initiative, now known as Food Future WNY.
“I think it’s a great initiative, and the sky’s the limit with what we can accomplish,” Lowe said. “The right people are around the table.”
At the core of what guides his work both in the NFLFAP and for Food Future WNY is the crucial focus on grassroots representation and leadership by those who are a part of the community it affects—especially those who face systemic exclusion and oppression.
He shared, “If [the food system] doesn’t represent the people it’s supposed to serve, it’s going to start prioritizing profits over people. Then, there’s no difference between the current food system and the one we’re working toward.”
Select quotes have been edited for clarity.
Buffalo faced one of its darkest days on May 14, 2022, when the only grocery store in a historically Black neighborhood was the target of a racist mass shooting. Long before that horrific day, Alex Wright saw clearly how institutional racism led to disinvestment and a lack of access to healthy, affordable food in his hometown and was doing something about it. Alex has been developing solutions and building community around his vision - and that vision stretches far beyond East Buffalo.
A few years later he took his idea one step further by creating Blegacy Farms when he bought a 22-acre parcel of land in Franklinville, NY, and started offering people of color the opportunity to grow fruits and vegetables on a plot of the farm and work towards ownership of that land. The risk was low knowing the Co-op would be an immediate customer and would link them to other potential customers.
"The Food Future work is so important to me because I want to make sure that as we're building, and as we're thinking about the future of food, we are doing it in an inclusive way. This group had real conversations about that," said Alex.
This storytelling project was made possible through funding from the WNY Foundation
Unlocking a Diverse Food Future: Community Self-Reliance and Social Justice as Drivers of Change
Euneika Rogers-Sipp for SCALE consulting team, April 2022
In this blog, the first of a series, I will highlight community-based organizations in Western New York that are creating and expanding innovative models of care - beginning new efforts and nurturing long-standing food sovereignty initiatives that are committed to improve health equity and support transformative system-level change.
The Food Future WNY Initiative is learning that forming the right partnerships with these community-based actors will address many of the underlying issues impacting our ability to effectively respond to local community needs for healthy food. Partnerships working at the intersection of farm enterprise, public health policy and racial justice aim to build a solid foundation for the future of food systems, thereby providing opportunities for mutual healing.
The Native Farm Bill Coalition meets at Gakwi:yo:h Farms in Cattaraugus County, April 12, 2022. Territories represented: Oneida Nation of Wisconsin, Seneca, Allegany, Seneca Cattaraugus, Tonawanda Band of Seneca, Tuscarora, Ganondagan, Cayuga, Onondaga, Akewesasne Mohawk, Kahnawake Mohawk, Eastern Band of Cherokee North Carolina. Photo by Mike Snyder.
An affirming, growing life force is generated by partnering with the Seneca people. Among the growing field of food system actors, who center Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (JEDI), in this potential accord is held in the greatest respect. As recently as 20 years ago, the Seneca experienced systematic destruction of their agricultural traditions, from how they butchered their animals to how they sowed, harvested, and distributed their crops. According to Mike Snyder, Director of the Seneca Nation Agriculture Department and Manager of Gakwi:yo:h Farms (good food in Seneca), a Seneca Nation farming enterprise, did not exist because in an ecosystem of traditional foods and medicinal practices farming was irrelevant in that iteration of Western New York’s food system culture.
Gakwi:yo:h Farms addresses food security and food sovereignty through community engagement and wellness by implementing a “Haudenosaunee” (pronounced Ho· de·no·sau·nee·ga) approach to agricultural practices. Commonly referred to as Iroquois of Six Nations, the goal is to produce healthy food, use quality food processing procedures and make these foods available to Seneca community members, from field to table. The foundation of the mission rests on the ability to positively impact the Seneca people, contribute to a conscious shift toward healthier eating habits, and change the way food is brought into homes.
As an agriculture initiative, Gakwi:yo:h Farms reconnects the philosophy of their Seneca ancestors and commits to promote the relationship between the people, their lands, and the foods they eat. Just as the Seneca people have always understood and respected the value of their traditional foods, they acknowledge the value placed on healthy food, especially white corn which is an inherent part of the Seneca culture. Gakwi:yo:h Farms is thriving, developed in the ways of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, which is indigenous to the exact location it stands today.
Three phases of Community Food Sovereignty: Plans and Action in Place
The Access, Equity, and Food Sovereignty (AES) Work Group explores and embraces the transformative potential, opportunities, and wide-ranging benefits that food sovereignty and other justice-based frameworks offer. Frameworks that can benefit people living and working in rural and urban areas. We are inspired by the movement of Senecas to re-establish and control their traditional food systems while diversifying into markets, production modes, cultures, and environments. Although the Seneca are not completely food sovereign today, they are well on their way to a culturally-specific system rooted in their origins. Their self-sufficiency model facilitates direct links between indigenous farming practices and a community's social and economic development.
To learn more, get involved or find contact information please visit the WNY Regional Food System Initiative website.